Mason Bates’s KC Jukebox: Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music, November 9, 2015
Mason Bates knows how to throw a party. For one night, the Kennedy Center’s dynamic new composer-in-residence managed to turn the staid institution into a bustling spot for contemporary music. The event, titled “Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music,” offered a sampling of experimental music heard in three period-specific “lounge” spaces. Bates’s concept was what he called “a walk-through history of ambient music”—music that doesn’t enforce attention but rather serves as the atmosphere for a social occasion. Alcohol – a free cocktail was provided with each ticket – played its traditional role as social lubricant. The result, casual and enjoyable if less than revelatory, nonetheless suggested some intriguing avenues for re-imagining the experience of classical music.
The evening began somewhat inauspiciously, with Bates, in his guise as DJ Masonic, and DJ Justin Reed blaring modern-day electronica to an expectant but somewhat disengaged audience. The design of the first “lounge” – a curtained-off space in the Nations Gallery decorated with chintzy mini-chandeliers likely repurposed from the Kennedy Center’s latest gala dinner – was underwhelming. Patrons seemed more preoccupied with standing in the long line at the bar or staking claim to the few available seats as they waited for the festivities to properly begin. Here, the DJs’ “ambient music” fulfilled its literal function—it was largely ignored.
Things picked up as the doors opened to the second lounge—an evocation of 1970s America, with wood laminate walls, tacky tulip light fixtures, and boxy television sets. The room showcased the music of two of the fathers of American minimalism: Steve Reich and La Monte Young. Four members of Third Coast Percussion offered a stimulating performance of Part One of Reich’s “Drumming,” which gradually overlapped with and then gave way to the drone of Young’s “Pre-Tortoise Dream Music,” performed by members of the National Symphony Orchestra and soprano Esteli Gomez. This was not the occasion for minute attention to the intricacies of Reich’s phase shifting or Young’s tuning system but rather simply the enjoyment of an atmospheric wash of sound.
The heart of the evening was the third lounge devoted to the music of Erik Satie and his French successors. The room gestured toward 1920s Parisian glamour, with Gomez and pianist Lisa Emenheiser in flapper wear, and even the page-turner elegantly turned out in a black Foucault turtleneck. Black-and-white video projections, designed by Austin Switser, helped set the mood. A fog machine, somewhat inexplicably, was also involved in the proceedings. Bates, taking a turn as the genial host of the evening, traced the origins of ambient music to Satie and his “furniture music” (musique d’ameublement). Notoriously, the first performance of Satie’s “furniture music” went awry when the audience actually paid attention and listened to the performance in silence—rather than, as Satie intended, treating it as mere ambience, like the clatter of knives and forks at a dinner party.
The set-up of this third lounge in the Kennedy Center Atrium reinforced traditional concert dynamics, with the performers on a central elevated stage serving as the natural point of focus. As Emenheiser offered the soporific banalities of Satie’s “Gymnopédies,” the audience listened in rapt attention, as if a masterpiece were at hand. Yet fascinatingly, the audience largely talked over the most substantial musical piece of the evening, a sprightly rendition of the first movement of Francis Poulenc’s witty Wind Sextet performed by several principal members of the NSO. But kudos to Bates for introducing—some might say, inflicting—the audience to Pierre Schaeffer’s “Etude aux chemins de fer” (1948), a landmark of avant-garde taped music.
The evening actually felt somewhat short, with the formal program ending in less than an hour before giving way to an after party. Also, by identifying Satie as the godfather of ambient music, Bates missed an opportunity to truly subvert the classical music experience. After all, many of the classical period’s string quartets and chamber works, which are regularly performed before worshipful audiences today, were originally written as background music for banquets and garden parties. How might Bates have de-familiarized a Haydn quartet or a Mozart serenade?
But in the end, the event – the first in the Kennedy Center’s new series devoted to contemporary music, KC Jukebox – may have been less significant for what it was than for where it was. It served as a valuable reminder that the institutionalized classical music experience as we understand it today, with its ritualized silence and slavish devotion to the canon, is a social construct of the late 19th and 20th centuries. There are different forms of attention and different modes of listening. If, as yet, none of the new models for presenting classical music have proved durable, Bates’s “curated” evening (to use the parlance of the day), which sustained a relaxed atmosphere and drew a younger and more diverse crowd to the august Kennedy Center, suggested some paths for exploration. And, if nothing else, it was a good party.
Incidental intelligence: the publicity materials for the event touted a “specialty cocktail”—“an absinthe concoction evocative of 1920s Paris.” Your humble scribe is an admitted novice in the ways of the green fairy, but a more experienced friend pronounced the cocktail “legit.”